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Technologies of Rebellion: Ottoman Balkans as a Site of Technological Contestation, 1878-1912 (2014-2015)

Field of study: History

In pursuit of their national histories, historians in the successor state of the Ottoman Empire in Europe and the Middle East have tended to identify neat paths of national development going back deep into the late Ottoman imperial context where they point out the intellectual ‘roots’ and politically significant moments—known as watershed moments—that have ostensibly contributed to the
development of their national histories. Such an examination of the late Ottoman world from the perspectives of the post-World War I nation-states has accordingly carved a set of ethnic compartments out of late Ottoman history that came to embody neat analytic utilities in scholarship. One way of going beyond such nationalist teleology is to approach the late Ottoman history in a thematic manner rather than bowing to the appeal of ethno-centered categories of analysis. This study takes one such approach and examines the Ottoman Balkans right before and after the turn of the century as a site of technological contestation between revolutionary political actors and Ottoman state apparatus. In doing so, it shifts the unit of analysis to more global processes and locates revolutionary political conduct as deeply connected to transnational flow of commodities and technologies. Under the impact of modernist theories on nationalism, technologies such as print capitalism have often been framed as the vehicles of fulfilling ideological dissemination and cultivating ethnic and religious loyalties. Another strand of scholarship, on the other hand, frames technologies such as telegraph,
railroads, and the steam engine as the tools with which the state apparatus extends its reach into otherwise uncontrollable territories. Critiquing such linear constructs, I argue that the late nineteenth century saw the democratization of the means of contention and violence. In the Ottoman Balkans, the major struggle between revolutionary actors and the Ottoman state apparatus had been that of establishing authority and monopoly on the technologies and commodities of violence. I therefore examine when and under what conditions new technologies empowered actors and when it made them vulnerable.

Keywords: Ottoman Balkans, revolutionary politics, technology, global commodities

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